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February 3 at 8:15am

Sundance Sale Dissection: Septien

By Ted Hope

Today’s guest post is from attorney and sales rep George Rush.  It is part one of two. George handled the sale of Michael Tully’s Septian to IFC’s Sundance Selects.

I have worked as a lawyer or a producer’s rep on hundreds of films over the years, and this experience has made me quite skeptical about the business model for independent producers.  The business is worse than it has been historically, but it is still the same very basic model.  You produce a film, a distributor exploits those rights.  You are good at creating content, they are good at marketing.  Hopefully those two things come together to benefit both parties.

I’m a hyper skeptic of producers essentially acting as their own distributors because generally they aren’t strong in both skill sets, and thus something usually suffers.  So I usually assume a producer is good at producing, and try to leave it at that.

Most of what I work on is low budget films with few if any stars.  Ten years ago, I considered a low budget film under two million dollars.  Today, I consider it under $500,000 and believe if you do something for a larger budget without a truly bankable cast, you are being reckless with your budget.

The distribution business has become tougher and they are paying less for content, and thus budgets go down correspondingly.  So how can you make something quality for under $500K—most people fail at this effort and there is a glut of so so films that just can’t compete with larger budgeted film—they are clearly inferior.  Indeed, most festival films in this budget range will never see the light of day beyond the festivals.  However, I don’t know how, but some people do.  It takes an extremely resourceful producer and director who is willing to take some chances to pull it off.

Enter Michael Tully’s Septien.  I hadn’t met Michael before, but I was somewhat familiar with him from Hammer to Nail.  He called me up and said he had a fucked up film that got into Sundance Midnight section.  As I listened to him, it didn’t sound like a genre film, but something that defied categorization.  He sent me a screener, and I really had no expectation when I popped it in.

I had worked on plenty of fucked up films, but most were weird for the sake of being weird and really didn’t have a life beyond a slender contrarian audience.  So I watched Michael’s film and it was fucked up, but it wasn’t weird for the sake of being weird.  There was something strange, unsettling, and wholly original about it.  I watched it again, and I was sold.  I loved it.

I lack a poker face, so I’ve found that trying to sell a film I didn’t like was pretty clear to the buyers.   I only rep a film if I am actually into it, and I loved this one. So I was in, but the film had challenges.  The first was how to characterize this film in a nutshell and who the audience was.  The film did not fit neatly into box.

I came up with a lot of ways to describe Septien — but my refernces often veered into more obscure things like Dogtooth and Henry Darger.  Cool things for sure, but not exactly elements that scream big audience.  I also felt like the audience would be cool indie kids and would build buzz from there.  I know distributors have a difficult time reaching audiences under 30.  That audience is accustomed to watching things digitally for free.  Our challenges for the film are the indie audience skews older (my parents love The King’s Speech), and that for a distributor, this film would be as hard to market as it was for me to describe.

What to do?  Check back tomorrow for part two.

For another angle on why 38 Films — Some dark — Sold At Sundance 2011, check out Anthony Kaufman’s article here.

George Rush is an entertainment attorney and producer’s rep in San Francisco.

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